Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011
Tikkun Olam and the Work of Education
by Svi Shapiro
The recent, much-hyped film Waiting for Superman has been well critiqued by a number of insightful observers. Against all reliable evidence, the film claims that somehow charter schools provide the solution to the problems of public education (even using the simplistic tool of standardized test scores, this claim must be regarded as pure fabrication). It also makes a pernicious attempt to lay the blame on teachers for what it regards as the crisis of American education. The film ignores the way that schooling reflects the way privilege and resources are distributed in American society, and it obfuscates the overwhelming influence of poverty in determining educational achievement. But at the heart of the film's silences is something much deeper and more pervasive: a failure to question the meaning and purpose of our children's education or address our need to work for a profoundly different moral and spiritual vision of the world they will inherit.
For those of us who have, for many years, understood and struggled for tikkun olam, this question of meaning is the real and defining focus of the crisis of education. It calls into question the misguided concern for standardized testing, with its emphasis on uniformity, competition, and invidious comparison as the criteria of "effective learning." Such learning is a source of alienation, boredom, anxiety, and homogenized pedagogy, producing results that do little more than reproduce our deepening social inequalities. Defining education's success or failure in this way offers nothing to the quest for a world of loving community, social justice, and nonviolence in our human relationships and in our relationship to nature.
Impelled by the moral and spiritual imperative of tikkun olam, our work with children, youth, and adult learners can be nothing less than to impart what Henry Giroux has called a language of critique and a language of possibility. We have a responsibility to nurture all learners' deeply democratic capabilities to courageously question the taken-for-granted values, meanings and behaviors that lead to a world scarred by so much violence, greed, injustice, and inhumanity. Beyond this, our work as educators is to encourage and support the human capacity to reimagine our world as one of caring and compassionate connection -- a task that carries with it the need for teachers to be sources of hopeful possibility, even in times of great disappointment and frustration. Far from the current tendency to define teaching as a de-skilled, much-maligned function of state and corporate interests, our work as teachers of tikkun is understood as that sacred human endeavor that touches and helps shape a world of renewed hope, vision, and beauty.
My work as a teacher of educators has always been impelled by the need to see, as Einstein so succinctly stated, that "not everything that counts can be counted." What does count is the unconditional worth of every student that is so often diminished by endless forms of judgment, comparisons, and rankings. I have sought to encourage my students to move beyond our taken-for-granted assumptions about learning and not to confuse schooling with authentic education. I have argued that a truly engaged pedagogy cannot be separated from the human quest for lives of real purpose and meaning. And I have insisted that educators' primary responsibility is not to school boards, administrators or politicians, but to the way they may contribute to the healing of a world blighted by violence, callousness, materialism, injustice, environmental destruction, and avoidable human suffering. Simply put, my job is always to remind those I teach that, in John Dewey's words, when we educate we make a world.
Svi Shapiro is professor of education and cultural studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His recent books are Education and Hope in Troubled Times (Routledge), Losing Heart: the Moral and Spiritual Miseducation of America's Children (Erlbaum), and Educating Youth for a World Beyond Violence: A Pedagogy for Peace (Palgrave).
Source Citation: Shapiro, Svi. 2011. Tikkun Olam and the Work of Education. Tikkun 26(1): online exclusive.